A glimmer of good news on the horizon was, however, received on 2 December when the mission was officially extended to almost 17 days, bringing it within hours of the record duration set by Tom Henricks' STS-78 crew a few months earlier. Awakened that day by Jackson Browne's song 'Stay', the decision gave ORFEUS-SPAS-2 an additional day of data-gathering and enabled the crew to press ahead with several of their onboard scientific experiments. One of these was the Space Experiment Module (SEM), provided by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and making its first flight. It was carried as part of efforts to increase educational access to space and targeted students from kindergarten to university level, providing research volume in a dustbin-sized GAS canister in Columbia's payload bay. The investigations encompassed studies of gravity and acceleration and observations of bacteria and crystal growth and carried algae, bones, yeast, photographic film and even a variety of children's play items, including crayons, chalk and Silly Putty. Other experiments in the middeck included a pair of medical investigations, studying blood pressure regulation in rats and microgravity's impact on bones at the cellular level.
As the mission drew to a close, Jernigan successfully recaptured ORFEUS-SPAS-2 with the RMS at 8:26 am on 3 December, manoeuvring it through a number of planned exercises to acquire positioning data with the SVS, before reberthing it in the payload bay. Overall, the second flight of the spectrometer-and-telescope package had been a spectacular success, with the instruments yielding data of a much higher quality than had been expected; the quantity, too, was impressive, with more
Columbia breaks her own record 291
Columbia is surrounded by servicing vehicles on the runway after completing the longest-ever Shuttle mission.
than 420 observations of around 150 astronomical targets, including the Moon, nearby stars, distant sources in the Milky Way, active galaxies and a quasar.
With a chance of less-than-favourable weather in Florida on 6 December, NASA managers revised their decision to allow the STS-80 astronauts to remain aloft for 17 days and instructed them to begin preparations to come home on the 5th. However, both landing opportunities at KSC were waved off that day, thanks to unacceptable cloud cover moving towards the SLF runway. With a more optimistic outlook for the 6th, Entry Flight Director Wayne Hale opted to forego a landing at Edwards and try again for Florida. Unfortunately, both opportunities that day, too, were called off due to low-level fog.
Eventually, following a cold front which moved through KSC on the night of the 6th and produced clear skies, Columbia came home to Runway 33 at 11:49:05 am on 7 December, smashing the record set by the STS-78 crew by around 18 hours. At the instant of touchdown, Ken Cockrell's mission had lasted 17 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes and 18 seconds and covered 11.2 million kilometres. Perhaps partially in recognition of this achievement, Cockrell became chief of NASA's astronaut corps in 1997 and would subsequently command two pivotal Shuttle missions to help build the International Space Station.
To this day, almost a decade later, no other Shuttle crew has surpassed the record set at the end of STS-80; and with the removal of EDO hardware from Endeavour -making none of the surviving vehicles capable of such long-haul feats - it is unlikely that it will be broken before the fleet retires around 2010. A fitting tribute, if ever one were needed, for Columbia.
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